Southeast Asia’s Balancing Act

It has been said so often that it has become a trope. Broadly speaking, the nations of Southeast Asia do not want to be forced to choose between China and the United States. The logic of this is straightforward–good relations with each great power offers unique benefits, and those in Southeast Asia would prefer to enjoy those benefits without risk or cost. Yet a closer analysis of dynamics in Southeast Asia, especially in the past 12 months, suggests a far more complex–and for the United States, troubling–dynamic is at play.
 
Though not widely understood, the past year has been highly significant for the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. While the region has long dealt with anxieties surrounding a rising China and a distant but still consequential United States, such anxieties have greatly intensified. This has largely been the result of the policies coming from Beijing and Washington. Xi Jinping’s aggressive and ambitious approach to foreign relations–especially when it comes to China’s neighbors, has sent shivers across the region.
 
For many in Southeast Asia, China represents a contemporary version of the Faustian bargain: they may get rich, but it could come at the cost of that which they hold most dear. There is an undeniable attraction to some aspects of China’s approach to Southeast Asia, especially in the economic realm. Beijing’s much-heralded programs such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seem tailor-made to answer Southeast Asia’s voracious appetite for capital, infrastructure, and trade.
 
Yet there are also intensifying fears across much of Southeast Asia that such investments will come with significant geopolitical strings attached, especially on issues dealing with China’s maritime and territorial claims. Many in the region took note of Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, and were especially concerned when he referred to the unsettling island building and military construction China had undertaken in the South China Sea as one of his top accomplishments and boasted of his “successful prosecution of [China’s] maritime rights.”
 
At the same time, many in Southeast Asia have grown more concerned about the sustainability of American power in the region. While President Trump’s visit to the region as part of his first trip to Asia and his announcement of a strategy to support a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was broadly welcomed, many have since come to believe that the Trump administration’s strategy amounted to little less than a bumper sticker. This reflects lingering disappointment about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was broadly seen as a crucial mechanism to ensure that the United States remains engaged and committed to the region. Without TPP, many saw the United States as untethered to Southeast Asia.
 
Moreover, many across the region have come to believe that the relative decline of American geopolitical is all but inevitable. This reflects lingering disappointment with the Trump administration’s strategy toward the region, but is also a conclusion derived from perceptions of American domestic political chaos and its strategic distraction. 
 
Finally, many in Southeast Asia have grown concerned about the increasingly explicit geopolitical competition underway between China and the United States. They fear–with good reason–that the export-oriented economies of Southeast Asia would be severely damaged by a trade dispute between the two great powers. More fundamentally, they fear that an explicit competition between Washington and Beijing will put them in the most uncomfortable of situations: being forced to take sides. Indeed, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong–historically a strong and reliable advocate for robust relations with the United States–said in Beijing that should “be prepared psychologically” for a U.S.-China trade war. He noted that a trade war “would make it very difficult for all the countries in Asia who are trying very hard to become friends with both, or stay friends with both.” Other diplomats from Southeast Asia have privately put the issue in more stark terms: do not make Southeast Asian nations choose between China and the United States, because they may decide to go with China.
 
It may be shocking to consider the possibility that major countries in Southeast Asia may align with China at the expense of the United States, especially considering lingering historical animosities and roiling anxieties about China’s long-term ambitions for regional dominance. Nevertheless, many in Southeast Asia see the dynamic in starkly realist terms: China is on the rise and close, the United States is on the decline and distant. While they may not like China, some in Southeast Asia may argue that it is better to be on the side of the healthy and vigorous bully next door than the distracted hero on the other side of town.
 
Several countries in Southeast Asia find themselves in a very problematic position as a result of these trends. This feeds existing insecurities about the future, and drives their leaders to employ a complex mix of different strategies to address this dilemma. In dissimilar ways and to varying degrees, each country in Southeast Asia is pursuing a complex hedging strategy that includes a mix of four different strategies in response to this uncertainty: bandwagoning with China, external balancing with the United States, external intra-regional balancing, and internal balancing. How each country approaches these strategies depends greatly on their specific circumstances: the criticality of their economic relationship with China and of their security relationship with the United States, whether there are any territorial or maritime disputes with China, and (in some cases) the strength of their ability to govern.
 
It would be a mistake to believe that these approaches are mutually exclusive, though they may appear to be at first blush. The reality is that most countries in Southeast Asia have employed a mix of all four strategies simultaneously. And most avoid explicitly aligning itself with either Beijing or Washington–better for them to lean in one direction or another depending on the geopolitical needs of the moment.
 
This is an issue that Washington should take seriously. The implications of Southeast Asia’s geopolitical direction are enormous. The ten nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reportedly represent a collective population of more than 625 million and an economy of $2.4 trillion. Collectively, the ASEAN nations are America’s third-largest Asian trading partner (after China and Japan) and the largest destination of U.S. investment in Asia.
 
Critically for the United States, despite all the concerns and disappointments, it remains a critical power in Southeast Asia. Most countries in the region would still prefer to work with Washington than Beijing, and continue to see the Unites States as a necessary (though likely insufficient) balancer against a rising and assertive China. The United States is just a few policy adjustments away from regaining confidence in the region and reenergizing its strategy for Southeast Asia.
 
Essential to this strategy must be a message that Southeast Asia will not be used as a pawn in the broader geopolitical competition between China and the United States. For much of its post-war history, Southeast Asia has been viewed by Washington through the lens of America’s broader geopolitical priorities: the Cold War, the War on Terrorism, and now competition with China. Yet the region has geopolitical value in its own right, and the United States will be more successful if it approaches Southeast Asia on its own merits outside of other geopolitical considerations.
 
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.